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In Workers of the Earth, Stefania Barca uncovers the environmental history and political ecology of labour to shed new light on the potentiality of workers as ecological subjects. This excerpt explores the fiery debate over ecomodernism.

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The political convergence between labour and mainstream ecological modernisation, what I call labour’s ecomodernism, is a major trend in the environmental politics of the neoliberal era in Western Europe. This pattern has become dominant in a historical context marked by a generalised decline in labour’s representation and political power, both at the trade union level and at the level of an almost generalised electoral defeat of the radical Left, as well as by a wide adoption of neoliberal policies in Western European countries.

At the same time, labour’s ecomodernism hides important internal fractures and ecological contradictions: on the one hand, in the wake of increasing unemployment levels, a number of different sectoral unions and political parties on the Left continue to support fossil fuels and the opening of new extractive frontiers (from gold mining to fracking to coal itself); on the other hand, labour’s endorsement of ecomodernism has been confronted by grassroots resistance against new ‘clean energy’ projects, such as wind farms and large-scale solar power plants, energy-from-waste facilities and high-speed railways. These divisions  immensely complicate the effort to delineate a red-green agenda, or even to understand where the front is located in the current ecological class conflict.

The last three decades of the twentieth century have represented a crucial turning point in labour environmentalism. The approach that had been consolidated in the Fordist era, based on trade unions’ struggles for health and safety regulations at the point of production, extending to society at large via democratic planning – what Italian communists called ‘the ecology of class’ – lost its centrality, and a variety of different visions emerged on the European Left. None of them, however, succeeded in preventing the labour movements of Western Europe from losing their anti-capitalist perspective and from embracing an ecomodernist political ecology.

This defeat should be read against the historical background of structural and political constraints (economic stagnation, deindustrialisation and the end of the Soviet experience); however, it must be also explained as the effect of internal shortcomings of Marxist political ecology: namely, the disconnect between ecosocialist and ecofeminist visions. 

The prospects for a red-green politics in Europe seem to be now polarised around two blocs, which could be seen as broadly representative of, respectively, ecomodernism and environmental justice: the first bloc revolves around a labour-friendly green growth plan based on a mix of market and non-market regulation, as represented by the European Trade Unions Confederation (ETUC) and the social democrat group at the European Parliament; the second bloc is inspired by a post-development and global environmental justice vision, as represented by the degrowth movement, towards which the materialist ecofeminist perspective has converged, and which also incorporates a reclaiming of the ‘common’ as the political terrain for (ecological) anti-capitalist politics. 

The first option represents the official position of labour environmentalism: however, this is now understood in a quite different way than its ecosocialist version. The Just Transition and climate jobs strategies, in fact, see workers not as the political subject of an ecological revolution, but as potential victims of climate policies. In other words, whereas the ecology of class was a transformative strategy, oriented towards a class-based defence of reproduction, this new version of labour’s ecomodernism is a conservative strategy, built around the defence of production.

The second option, on the other hand, manifests in grassroots resistance to both carbon-intensive activities and ‘clean energy’ megaprojects, as well as in a number of urban squatting/gardening/work-sharing initiatives, many of which are consciously adopting degrowth principles. According to degrowth advocate and scholar Giorgos Kallis, these actions are not inspired by an escapist, but rather by a nowtopia attitude, that is, one that aims at changing the city by linking grassroots with institutional action. It must be noted, however, that this strategy has failed so far to gain mass traction with the impoverished and precarised working classes of the austerity era, nor does it seem capable of having a constructive dialogue with the labour movement in general. 

The disconnect and even occasional hostility between an ecofeminist perspective, now strictly allied with environmental justice/post-development/degrowth movements, and labour’s ecomodernism is what is currently impairing the possibility of developing a stronger and more convincing anti-capitalist ecological struggle, both in Europe and at the global level. This strategy, I contend, should aim at transforming labour environmentalism into an anti-patriarchal and anti-colonial alliance between industrial and meta-industrial workers. For this to happen, a new generation of political ecologists and militant scholars will need to take up the challenge of rethinking the working classes and their ecological agency.

Stefania Barca is an environmental historian and a feminist political ecologist. She is the author of Forces of Reproduction: Notes for a Counter-Hegemonic Anthropocene and of Enclosing Water: Nature and Political Economy in a Mediterranean Valley, which was awarded the Turku Environmental History Book Prize.

This is an edited excerpt of Workers of the Earth.